Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Isle

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE ISLE

5/10

(South) Korea 2000 : KIM Ki-Duk* : 86 mins (full version runs 90 mins)

The Korean countryside, the present day. A fishing resort is located on a large, remote lake. There is a small office-cum-shop on the mainland, where the sole worker is a mute woman (Suh Jung) in her late twenties. She uses a boat equipped with an outboard motor to visit the lake’s “floats” – small cabins buoyed up by large blue plastic barrels – which are used by visitors from the city for fishing and sex. Some bring their mistresses. Others telephone for local prostitutes. Occasionally the mute woman provides the same service. One day a taciturn man (Kim Yoo-Suk) arrives at the resort. Alone in his “float” he plans suicide. But he’s distracted from his plan by the mute woman. They drift into a torrid relationship marked by rough sex and extreme self-inflicted violence. One of the visiting prostitutes (Park Sung-Hee) befriends the suicidal man. The mute woman is not best pleased. Complications ensue.

The Isle was unveiled to international audiences at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th, 2000. One day shy of four years later, it was commercially released into UK cinemas as part of enterprising distributor Tartan Films’ ‘Asian Extreme’ season. At some point during the intervening four years the British Board of Film Classification had excised four minutes of footage containing the cruel, non-simulated abuse of fish. Ever since that Toronto premiere, The Isle had been notorious for these scenes – as well as for some simulated sequences of nastiness involving fish-hooks whose stomach-churning extremity Takashi Miike’s Audition.

The fish/hook controversy effectively catapulted Kim onto the international stage. Before The Isle, his previous features Wild Animals (1996), Crocodile (1996) and The Birdcage Inn (1998) hadn’t made any notable ripples outside the film-festival circuit. Afterwards, his profile has increased in tandem with his quickening work-rate: Real Fiction (2000), Address Unknown (2001), Bad Guy (2001), The Coast Guard (2002), international arthouse hit and critical favourite Spring Summer Autumn Winter … and Spring (2003) and Samaritan Girl (2004). His latest, currently known as 3-Iron (2004), won the Fipresci prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Already the most acclaimed Korean director, Kim seems on the verge on breaking through to even greater renown: it’s surely only a matter of time before he picks up a golden Palm, Bear or Lion. But having seen two of his films – The Coast Guard and now The Isle – I’m still unconvinced that he’s anything out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on recent Korean cinema, but of the dozen or so titles I have seen I’d place Park Chan-Wook’s OLDBOY and Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder ahead of the two Kim entries. I’d even rate them both inferior to Kim Sung-Hong’s relatively disreputable and unpretentious thriller Say Yes.

The animal cruelty issue is a definite stumbling-block. Even in its censored UK version, The Isle contains several scenes in which live fish are chopped up for no purpose than to indicate the mental disturbance of the lead characters – apart, perhaps, from a desire for further controversy. A frog is shown being beaten to death with a stick, skinned, then fed (in fragments) to a caged bird. Which bird, incidentally, ends up being thrown, in its cage, into a lake – Kim mercifully resists the temptation to show the distressed bird sinking to its watery demise, so on that specific point we’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

There’s absolutely no excuse, however, for a brief but disturbing scene in which a dog is seen being physically chastised by the principal female character, identified in the credits (but not in the film itself) as Hee-Jin. Again, this scene is intended to illustrate the character’s volatile mental state – but there are countless other methods of doing this without punishing a friendly, innocent, defenceless dog. Added together, these scenes just give the impression that Kim is what some clinical psychologists would term “a sick fuck.”

It might be a little easier to give Kim the benefit of the doubt if the rest of The Isle justified his lofty reputation. The picture certainly has its moments – there’s an anything-can-happen quality that’s quite beguiling, and the two fish-hook scenes certainly pack a punch. Setting nearly all the action on and between the picturesque lake “floats” is an original idea with much dramatic potential. But Kim isn’t really interested in plot – his script is riddled with absurdities and coincidences (divers just-so-happen to explore a part of the lake where Hee-Jin has disposed of a corpse) to an extent which indicates we’re not supposed to interpret what we’re seeing literally.

Trouble is, The Isle doesn’t really work on the figurative level either – the overriding impression is of a director content to sketch in the basic elements of an enigma, which audiences are then supposed to assemble complete on their own. But there’s no real substance here, no exploration of ideas. It’s unfortunate that the very last shot of the film is simultaneously the clumsiest and most wilfully obscure bit of symbolism in the whole movie, one seemingly designed to have audiences scratching their heads as they make for the exits.

4th October, 2004
[seen 4th October : UGC, Boldon : public show]

* in this review all names are given in the Korean format, with surnames first.

by Neil Young